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A Word, Please: The upsides and drawbacks of spell-checker

April 25, 2014|By June Casagrande

I got an email recently from a reader whose spell-checker flagged the word “uninvolved” as an error.

I’m not sure what software she was using. My Microsoft Word doesn’t have a problem with “uninvolved.” But her spell-checker didn’t like it one bit.

Spell-check programs vary greatly. But there are two observations we can make about spell-checkers that are, in fact, universal: 1. You can’t live with ’em. 2. You can’t live without ’em.

There’s no question that spell-checkers can save your hide. Words like embarrass, supersede, naive, liaison and many others are easy for a human to misspell. But a computer can catch them every time.

Then there are repeated words like “the the,” “on on,” “at at” and so on. As anyone who’s ever failed the “Paris in the the spring” test can attest, the human eye tends to gloss over such hiccups. But my computer never fails to point these out.

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So in some ways, a spell-checker is smarter than its user. But in other ways, a spell-checker is just dumb.

For one thing, no spell-checker program I’ve ever seen can understand prefixes and suffixes. These little bits let you to make up your own words that, though not in any dictionary, are 100% correct, even though spell-checker doesn’t realize it.

Uninvolved, unagitated, precoughed, codesigner, antiworker, bicycleborne — the red lines I’m seeing under these words as I type make clear that spell-checker disapproves. But spell-checker is wrong. Prefixes and suffixes, which usually work without hyphens, can create new terms that, though not in a dictionary or database, are legitimate.

Another problem with spell-checker is that it creates a false sense of security. Say, for example, you’re writing a document that mentions the name Mahar multiple times. When you run spell-checker, the program pauses at the first instance of the word. So you click “ignore” because you know the word is right. Now, assuming you didn’t click “ignore all,” spell-checker will flag this word every time. So you’ll just keep automatically clicking “ignore,” failing to notice that in one place you misspelled it Maher.

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